Last week I presented an paper on structural obstacles that perpetuate ecological problems. More bluntly, this paper was a critique of capitalism in terms of the manner in which its processes destroy designers’ capacity to create sustainable ways of living. The paper was called ‘Design vs. the Design Industry’ (presently being re-written) and the conference was on spontaneous orders, otherwise known as emergent orders. My trip and the event was sponsored by The Atlas Foundation, a group associated with classical liberals, libertarians or free-market thinkers supporting the philosophies of the likes of Friederick Hayek and Ayn Rand. In contrast, my paper explained why the design industries are unable to make sustainability possible when directed by the systemic goals of the capitalism. Despite the fact that designers have emergent capacities to address larger social and ecological problems, capitalism will continue to direct energies of individual designers towards systemic priorities which are increasingly anti-social and anti-ecological.
One of the major arguments in this paper is that knowledge itself is distorted by communication processes influenced by and increasingly determined by, market processes (witness the fact that Congress has just declared pizza a vegetable after intense lobbying by the American Frozen Food ‘Institute’). Predictably, the majority of the free market champions attending the conference disagreed with my arguments. Still, I was impressed by the diversity of opinions. Conference director Gus diZeraga’s paper ‘Paradoxes of Freedom’ described how ‘the range of values a person can pursue without being penalised by the system is narrowly defined’ and developed a convincing argument for how capitalism penalises ethical behaviour and even ‘transfers wealth from the morally sensitive to the morally insensitive’. Most importantly, the conference provided an opportunity to observe the specific arguments of those who provide the intellectual justification for the neo-liberal policies currently dismantling social institutions, public infrastructure, concentrating wealth and supporting ecological destructive industrial development globally.
Town Hall in Nederlands, Colorado (where I was staying with my sister).
The problem with the the classical liberal position is its error in its conception of both nature and society. By conceiving of each man as an island, radical individualists and free market enthusiasts fail to see basic interdependence between humankind and nature. Individualists fail to recognise the manner in which an economic system depends on functioning ecological and social systems for stability. Strangely, they conceive of nature as a human-made construct; as if humans make natural resources out of the earth through the power of human ingenuity. Ecological problems will all be resolved by human innovation. The astonishing arrogance of these free-market apologists is now being chipped away by increasing levels of ecological and social crisis. As the world’s earth scientists warn us of earth system crisis, these folks have an increasingly problematic time justifying their position and have to resort to entirely evading problematic areas in their philosophies. I believe that many of these people are starting to recognize scale of the catastrophe created by an economic system reflecting the ideological errors and blind spots of rampant individualism. For those of us awake to the environmental crisis, this awareness is a constant underlying motivation. For advocates of the laissez-faire economics, emergent realisation of relations and interconnections provides and opportunity to amend errors in their basis premises.
It appeared to me that the republicans party is basically composed of two types of individuals. Both types are individualists who are strongly devoted to the free market as a means of creating both prosperity and ‘freedom’. The two types can be characterised as: 1) elites who are strongly devoted to the free market as a means of creating prosperity; 2) Fox News watching masses who have been trained to vote against their own class interests. For elites the lack of regulation allows them to further concentrate wealth. For the others, a dominant republican strategy is to dumb down the level of political debate to make sure that republican voters who are not elites (and thus beneficiaries of republican political policy – the 99%) do not understand the consequences of the political decisions that are being made on their behalf. This dynamic is creating a political powerfully block who are responsible for the emergence of a new type of inverted totalitarianism called corporatism (working in exactly the opposite direction of the freedom these people claim to promote). This block is a disaster for the natural world as they have little conception of the ecological consequences of modern ways of living. These tactics are hardly uniquely American as the UK suffers from similar politically dumped down debate. Yet the phenomenon reaches epic scale in the US as demonstrated last week with the Texas governor Rick Perry who could not remember his own three main points in the republican presidential debate.
Meanwhile, the democratic party has failed to take a strong position in defence of the either the 99% or the environment and is thereby complicit with encroaching corporatism. Obama won with a mandate for change but demonstrated only that the American political system is entirely corrupted by financial, military and corporate interests. This corruption of the democratic party has manifested in three ways: 1) Obama oversaw the transfer of public wealth to Wall Street virtually without any structural change in the financial system that created the crisis; 2) Obama increased military spending and continued American military aggression abroad; 3) Obama took a weak stand against corporate interests in the House and the Senate by working in a bi-partisan manner with the republicans. The republicans will do virtually whatever they have to increase their own power including stalling all bills and grinding the House to a virtual deadlocked. In these three ways Obama and the democrats demonstrate their allegiance to the bankers who trashed the economy, the military-industrial complex and corporate elites who control the American government (through the lobbying industry and corporate media). The democratic party is so deeply entrenched within an entirely corrupt political system it is a mistake to believe that the democrats will stop the slide into inverted totalitarianism in the USA. Democrats and republicans in the USA are simply two sides of the same coin, one slightly more friendly looking but both are only valid for an increasingly limited version of freedom and justice.
The prevailing political processes are structurally unsustainable. There is literally no long-term future unless we all embark on the work of restructuring governing systems and development models from the bottom up. The future of the natural world is now dependent on movements of resistant such as the occupation movement. America has a tradition of town hall meetings and bottom-up politics that it could draw on to build political and social institutions that could support economic, social, and ecological renewal. It would be impossible to over state the importance of these movements presently.
Over the past two weeks I have been staying in the small town of Nederlands, up in the mountains outside Boulder Colorado with my sister and her family. I have spent my time hiking in the Rocky Mountains in forests infested by epidemic of pine beetle, a problem linked to climate change and warmer winters that no longer kill the pest. The picture below is a pyre of diseased wood taken in Rocky Mountain National Forest. Forest rangers desperately attempt to burn the diseased word before the pest can spread – threatening entire forests from Vancouver to Colorado. The pyres are like the political situation in America. Entire forests are begin decimated. Similarly, rampant individualism is a cancerous philosophy that denies basic inter-relations and creates the intellectual justification for the exploitation of other humans and the earth. The results are now catastrophic.
It is within humankind’s capacity to respond to economic, social and ecological crisis – but it will not be possible within an economic system wherein the systemic priorities direct energies towards anti-social and anti-ecological goals. The American people must draw on democratic traditions and develop the capacity to resist the dumbing down of both political debate and the depoliticisation of the ‘American way of life’. A new politics informed by an emergent understanding of inter-relations and complexity offers potential for renewal. It should be obvious that this transformation is will take an great deal of work, it will be a struggle and there is no guarantee it will work.